Writing Assignments: Depth and Breadth

In crafting assignments, we strive to help our students find depth of knowledge while allowing them to explore topics located off the beaten path. In my course, Witnessing the Sixties, students read classics like Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique and yet I also want them to encounter Sixties phenomena that are revelatory due to their very obscurity or creativity. How to strike this balance by way of written assignments? The two assignments I detail below are designed to balance the deep-dive immersion with surface-skimming jaunt.

After the introductory material about “The Seedbed of the Sixties” (the culture of conformity in the postwar years), students read a series of works by famous authors which express the era’s longings for “freedom.” Betty Friedan, of course, made the case for upending the suburban order that kept women in the home. Freedom meant smashing the feminine mystique created by popular magazines. It then entailed women finding meaningful careers outside the home. Martin Luther King pressed for economic and civil rights for African Americans in his momentous book, Why We Can’t Wait. Freedom meant good jobs and an end to segregation; this allowed for more political participation and in turn more economic advancement. I also took a risk and assigned Herbert Marcuse’s Essay on Liberation. Marcuse makes a passionate plea that a creative minority and the student movement should offer a “great refusal” to the capitalist system, disclosing new possibilities of social organization and consciousness. Freedom required a serious modification to the means of production. Finally, we read Timothy Leary’s case for freedom as a state of mind achieved after a well-organized LSD trip.  Leary, of course, has a “politics,” mind-bending psychedelics created an awareness of the social reality that mankind is bound together in a universal oneness. With an orientation to this real, one can proceed to build a better world, free of the system’s mental controls.

When students bring these works together they can see that liberation in one realm, gender, fails to solve questions raised by race. LSD is a particular class-based solution (Leary was a Harvard professor!); Marcuse makes the important point that all of these dreams are constrained by capitalist mediation. How does one become free?

I wanted to design an assignment that would help students bring these thinkers into a conversation. The assignment might reveal a baseline shared by all four titans of thought. After spending a series of class periods unpacking their ideas, we had to come up with some type of synthesis to move the class forward. The point of braiding these seeming incommensurable positions together in the form of writing is to crystalize the reality about just how complex later sixties social movements would become as they pressed multiple demands on “The System” to end oppression.

Hence I designed an assignment I called “The Dinner Party.” I first encountered an idea for a paper like this while serving as a Teaching Assistant at Marquette University as a master’s student. That paper, as I recall, brought Socrates and Jesus together with some other friends. Friedan, King, Leary and Marcuse all sit down to dinner – have some wine – and stumble into a discussion about the nature of freedom. Students are to craft the dialogue that ensues at the party. They have to translate the writings of King or Leary into their own words and set them into a conversation. They have to consider how a particular thinker would push back against a definition of freedom that failed to consider their particular passion. Could women really be free if they assumed jobs in a capitalist system after leaving the home? Could anyone be free if they remained rational agents? The interlocutors probed and questioned one another’s positions. Friedan fails to consider race. King favors too much capitalism for Marcuse’s taste. All are too rational for Leary. All consider Leary to be fleeing from the concrete problems rather than addressing them.

Yet, here we see the Sixties in a complex jumble: emancipatory demands produce tons of contradictions. The students who do very well on the paper spend some time allowing the guests to wrestle with these ideas.

The assignment can be adapted to many types of American Studies classes. Imagine Stephen Douglas, Lincoln, John Brown, and Frederick Douglas sitting down to a nice pot roast. What about Abigail Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Sally Hemmings, and James Madison breaking bread together? Students see analogies and sharp divergences. In other words, they see “America.” Could these people build a society together? How to liberate one group without oppressing another? Is freedom a tangible/material or psychological/mental? These questions strike at the heart of the American story itself. This assignment serves as a synthetic base that raises a “problem” for the remainder of the course.

Both the instructor and the students must dig deeply into a specific topic in an upper-level American Studies course like “Witnessing the Sixties.” This is necessary yet also lamentable – how can dive deeply into “great books” while we also bring in the insights of research on the social and cultural of the era? I wanted to find a way to explore various local histories of the sixties and even find meaning in “the weird.” The students could also be the agents that help to make this course more global. The Sixties, like other areas of American History, has fabulous and niche journals at its disposal.

I came up with an assignment I call “The Journal Article Evaluation.” I required students to select an article from The Sixties: A Journal of History, Politics, and Culture.  Students visited the online database to claim an article of their own. It was first come, first serve; no two students could have the same article. Students were to summarize the article’s argument, connect the article to a previous course reading, and provide an evaluation of the argument.

As each student has their own article, I can call on that student in class and ask them to connect their new particular area of expertise to our discussion at hand. Each student has an instant research niche and something unique to contribute to our dialogue. A student who read “Dedicated Followers of Fashion: Peacock Fashion and the Roots of the New American Man, 1960-1970,” contributed insight to our discussion on the sartorial regimes of the counterculture. In our conversations about how the media plays a role in creating “The Sixties,” a student unpacked the details and arguments in an article called “The BBC and the Black Weekend: broadcasting the Kennedy Assassination and the Birth of Global Television News.” Here we also get a taste of the British 1960s. The essay, “The ‘Feminine Mystique’ and Problems of a Cohort of Female Canadian University Students in the Early 1960s,” provided empirical evidence of the limits of the Feminine Mystique as applied to Canadian women. Did Betty consider all of the evidence? Articles that investigated the Sixties in Northern Ireland, Japan, and East Germany take our course discussions global.

The Sixties, like all historical phenomena, can be intricate and complex. Herbert Marcuse’s Essay on Liberation is jargon-laden Cultural Marxism but it’s worthy of a deep dive. Yet we must also find a way to call on creative social history research, so that our courses are as broad as they are deep. The “Dinner Party” and the “Journal Article Evaluation” are my attempts to balance these competing demands for students.



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